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What You Must Know as a Defendant
Charged with a Crime

by Ira Still, Esquire
South Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer

In Trial: How to Relate to the Courtroom Work Group


Article Summary:

Want to do all you can to make your case turn out well?  Put your best foot forward when you enter the courtroom.  Learn how to relate to the Judge and the other courtroom workers!  To a large extent, these people control your destiny.  They are not the enemy.  They set the standards.  The author, a seasoned criminal defense lawyer, has culled from his vast experience to write this article as a guide in your understanding of how to relate to the courtroom work group. 


Who is the Judge and what is his role?

The Judge is the person who is elevated on the Bench in the front of the courtroom. While the Judge is required by law to rule on the “admissibility” of the evidence as it comes into trial, the jury is empowered by law to rule on the “reliability” or “credibility” of the evidence.  The Judge must have no impact on the jury’s verdict.  If the ultimate verdict is guilty as charged, the Judge will be the one deciding the sentence.  The jury cannot consider what the sentence might be when they deliberate on the facts.  The role of the Judge and the role of the jury at the trial are separate and distinct.   

If you decide to have your case tried to the Judge alone without a Jury, several factors come into play: 

¨      The Judge will decide admissibility AND reliability of the evidence.

¨      The trial will be much shorter.  A three day jury trial can be completed

            in an afternoon by the Judge.

       ¨      The drama that is seen in jury trials is low-keyed in a trial to the Judge.

¨      The Judge and the prosecutor are both employed by the State

            but their roles and requirements are theoretically different.

¨      Certain arguments presented with theatrics that can be favorably

      made on the jury have no impact on the Judge sitting alone as

            decision-maker in the case.

¨      The Judge alone decides on all issues of procedure and law

      as well as deciding the facts of the case.  There are fewer

            checks and balances. 

Every Judge has their own personality which they bring to their courtroom.  This human factor must be taken into consideration just as it is in every other walk of life.  Thus we ask, “Is the Judge the enemy with whom we are at war?”   Have you played competitive sports?  In basketball, for instance, your team is competing against another team.  Both want to win!  A referee is hired to call the game according to the same rules that everyone applies to every game.  The referee is impartial but still has to rule in favor of one team or the other.  Yelling and screaming at the referee never persuades a change in ruling but may influence future calls.  It is always in your team’s favor to calm down and abide by the referee’s ruling.  Play the game hard but you must abide by the rules.  To do that it helps to know the rules inside and out. 

We can perceive two different pictures of the courtroom.  One is where the Judge is very strict and treats everyone the same.  The other is where the Judge is overly friendly with one or more of the attorneys and courtroom workers and the atmosphere is very loose.    

In the case of the strict Judge, both sides must approach the podium to present their arguments; otherwise, they are not permitted to talk.  They must stand to make their objections.  When they sit down, they must be quiet while the other party presents their argument.  In the other picture with the loose or relaxed atmosphere, familiarity often congeals into a close knit fraternity between the Judge and the prosecutor that is very hard to put aside once a jury trial commences.  After all, they spend most of the work week together. 

You are never certain into which situation you will step for your trial.  Whether the Judge is very strict or overly relaxed cannot be predicted by the defendant.  However, an astute Defense lawyer should find out what the tendencies of that particular Judge are before the trial starts.  Either way, you will want be respectful to the office of the Judge.  If you ever get arrested again in the same jurisdiction you will most likely be assigned to that very same Judge. 

Here are some suggestions for your behavior that will help you with the Judge as decision maker. 

  • Be polite; stand up and be quiet when the Judge enters and exits
    the courtroom.
  • Don’t talk when the Judge is talking.
  • If you talk to your lawyer, whisper or, preferably, write him a note.
  • Keep in mind that after the trial should the verdict go against you,
    the Judge that you have been respectful to at trial will be the one
    determining your sentence.
  • Listen to the Judge and try to understand the rulings of the Court.
Who are the other people up front in the Courtroom? 

The in-court clerk usually is seated in front or just to the side of the Judge, depending upon the layout of the courtroom.  This employee works for the Clerk of the Court who is an independently elected official.  The in-court clerk takes orders from the Judge but is governed by the procedures delineated by the Clerk’s office.   This is not an antagonist to the Defense, so don’t be rude to the in-court clerk.  Nothing is ever gained by fighting with this person.  You will see during breaks when the jury and Judge leave the courtroom, that the in-court clerk is usually kind, friendly and polite to everyone else in the courtroom environment.  Since the in-court clerk does all of the Court notices, makes the entries into the case file and literally “has the Judge’s ear” throughout the case process, you already have an important relationship with that person.  

The court reporter takes down everything that is said while Court is in session.  The reporter usually uses a machine to record a type of shorthand version of the spoken word exchanged between the various speakers.  They are attentive and focused because, if they miss anything they may not keep that job for long.  The Record of the case is of utmost importance for later appeals, reference by the parties or postconviction Courts and even if the jury wants a read-back of testimony in this trial.  The reporter generally doesn’t engage in any conversation with other persons in the courtroom even during breaks.   

The bailiffs or in-court deputies are very important persons to the Defense.  They have observed hundreds of jury trials and have a good feeling for how your particular trial is going.  They are a good source of information and advice that is helpful to those who will listen and heed.  For example, in a trial where the defendant had long, wild dreadlocks and the sole issue was an eye-witness identification, the bailiff tried to convince the defendant to shave his head for trial.  The bailiff told him to try to look like Michael Jordan and be quiet and respectful during trial.  The attorney, the defendant’s family, and all of the courtroom workers gave the same advice but to no avail.  Ironically the eye-witness testified that he had not seen the armed robber’s hair because he might have had a cap on.  However, the subconscious thinking of the jurors was, “If I didn’t see this man for 10 years and suddenly saw him, I would remember it was him because of that hair!”  He was convicted and sentenced to life.  Had he listened to everyone’s advice, the outcome might have been different.  

In court, during your criminal trial, as in all facets of life, the best advice anyone can give you is to try to live up to some of the points of the Boy-Scout Law, “Be friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, and clean.  Put your best foot forward for trial.  Respect the Judge, the court process and the court room workers who strive to live up to those standards every day.  If you do try your hardest to exemplify these things, some degree of grace and mercy just might come your way when you need it most.